South Korea Beckons: Global Awareness and Cultural Sensitivity Strategies for Western Technical Communicators

For the past four years, I've lived outside India. Being an expatriate has given me a unique perspective; it has made me more responsive toward the issues of global awareness and cultural sensitivity. More importantly, working as a technical communicator in East Asia has rewarded me with firsthand experience of the cultural differences and their implications on both my professional and personal life. Through this article, I'd like to share my experiences—good and bad—with Western technical communicators, about what it's like to work for a Korean company.

Overcoming Cultural Pangs

As an expatriate in Korea, it took me just one week to realize how different Korean culture is compared to Indian culture. The Japanese occupation and the war with North Korea have left footprints on modern Korean culture.

The traditional values in South Korea stem from deep-rooted Confucian ideology. Confucianism or "The School of the Scholars" revolves around social, political, philosophical, ethical, and religious thoughts that have influenced the culture and history of South Korea up to the 21st century. Nowhere is this more evident than in Korea's corporate system.

Learning to Appreciate a Different Culture

As more and more workplaces become multicultural, there's a great sense of appreciation and respect toward employees from different countries, cultural backgrounds, or ethnicities. Take South Korean conglomerates like Samsung, for instance, where the concept of "global" employees has become quite popular. At Samsung, you're more likely to meet contract employees from India, China, Russia, Ukraine, Japan, Germany, America, France, Turkey, Philippines, and Belarus.

Technical communication also requires sensitivity to diverse cultures. As professional technical communicators, we need to be more aware of cultural differences. By considering the cultural makeup of our audience, we can cater to their needs, without inadvertently causing any embarrassment or resentment.

Differentiating Between High-context and Low-context Cultures

If you're writing for high-context cultures, such as Korea, Japan, China, or France, which assume that readers of technical documents should have enough knowledge about the subject before they begin reading, focus on the amount of detail you need to provide. Generally, technical documentation from high-context cultures offers little detail or explanation.

On the other hand, writers in low-context cultures, such as the United States, India, United Kingdom, or Germany, are expected to provide more detail in technical documents, since it is assumed that their readers know very little or nothing about the subject. Unsurprisingly, technical documentation from low-context cultures is far more comprehensive and elaborate than technical documentation from high-context cultures.

Knowing how much information to provide in a particular culture helps writers communicate more effectively. By considering the cultural background of your audience, you won't overwhelm them with too much information (in high-context cultures) or too little information (in low-context cultures).

Respecting the Hierarchy

In every culture, unwritten rules govern many interactions. Understanding these rules can help you succeed in that culture.

Confucianism has introduced a structure of hierarchy, rather than a matrix, in most Korean organizations. Professionals are hired on merit, in tandem with social considerations. School affiliation and age play a major role in most hiring decisions in Korea.

Koreans place a lot of emphasis on title; it could be said that nowhere in East Asia does title hold more prominence than in Korea. Try addressing a Korean colleague of the same age group but higher designation with his name, and chances are you'll be asked to prefix a title. If you don't use a title to address someone higher in the value chain, Koreans are likely to consider you disrespectful or discourteous.

If the distance between top- and bottom-level organizational hierarchies is wide, technical communicators should resort to formal communication. If the culture encourages a flat organization, the communication automatically becomes less formal.

In order to succeed in a Korean company, you must consider the hierarchy between you and the final decision maker. Allow everybody in the middle to give their opinion and be included as much as possible.

Some Differences Between Korean and Western Workplaces

  • According to an in-depth analysis of the "2004 Time Use Survey," South Koreans spend more time at work than Westerners. Most Korean managers throw a fit each time a subordinate enters the premises late, even by a minute. Koreans are sticklers for punctuality, and most jobs vary from 30 to 40 hours a week, but you'll always be encouraged to spend more time at work. If you're interested in working in Korea, and you're accustomed to flex time and telecommuting, be prepared to make some major adjustments to your lifestyle.
  • In most East Asian nations, cultures tend to be collectivist. In other words, people pursue group objectives and respond to the groups' needs. But again, several Western countries propagate individualistic culture, where personal achievement holds more prominence than other things. If you know your audience and their cultural orientation, choosing between "me-oriented" or "we-oriented" writing shouldn't take long.
  • People in East Asian countries—mostly Korea and Japan—prefer indirect modes of communication to direct modes of communication. Countries like the United States, India, and Canada typically prefer direct communication. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Koreans tend to shy away from Westerners who are loud, direct, or candid in any form of expression. In the Western world, it might be okay to ask questions, such as age and rank. However, in this part of the world, it's considered inappropriate to ask many questions during meetings or conference calls. If you sit quietly and absorb everything that's thrown at you, you'll probably fare better than someone who doesn't. People in East Asian cultures also generally do not contradict their supervisors or seniors as a point of respect.

New Field, Greater Challenges

Technical communication is a new and emerging field in South Korea—not many Koreans consider it a separate profession or a true academic discipline. In fact, very few know what we do and confuse technical communication with advertising, journalism, translation, or technical marketing.

In an exclusive interview with JoongAng Daily, a leading South Korean newspaper, Sohn Eun-rag, deputy director of the policy department at the National Statistical Office, stated that out of 1,414 job categories listed with the Korean government, "technical writer" was still classified under "translator," implying that technical communication in Korea continues to remain unrecognized as a government-designated job. There could be many factors attributing to this, says Sohn, who feels that the field is relatively new—with only a limited number of technical communication practitioners, academicians, or service providers.

Changing the current scheme of things requires a gigantic effort and a fair bit of evangelism. Lack of proper technical communication education or training in Korea only makes it harder to cover enough ground. But on the bright side, less awareness about our profession also means that the market is ripe for exploration.

According to Chang Seok-jin, director of the Korea Technical Communications Association (KTCA), the product liability law passed in 2002 brought about a paradigm shift in the way Korean companies look at user manuals. Under the law, if a Korean company was found responsible for financial or physical damage as a result of its badly written instruction manuals, it could be booked for legal punishment.

More Opportunities for Practitioners, Service Providers, and Academicians

As technical communication tries to establish a foot-in-the-door here, big Korean companies like Samsung, Hyundai, and LG are creating opportunities for practitioners and service providers from foreign countries, inviting them to experience, and be a part of their multifaceted culture.

A typical "work profile" for technical communicators in such companies will include writing such things as reports, business letters/memos, instruction manuals, sales and marketing materials, data sheets, proposals, e-communication, and translation materials.

Also, premier Korean universities are now inviting outstanding international scholars and academicians, mostly from native English-speaking nations, to teach technical communication. For instance, the College of Engineering at Seoul National University (SNU) is planning to start a full-time degree course in engineering general and convergence technology, which includes technical writing as one of its main subjects. SNU sees two distinct advantages with such an arrangement—first, it will promote diversity of its faculty, student body, and curriculum; and second, it will beef up its position on the global map.

The University of Science and Technology (UST), a group of public universities and research institutions located in Seoul, Suwon, Seongnam, and Daejeon, provides special courses in technical communication and technical writing. Ewha Woman's University also offers a master's degree in professional writing and technical communication.

For miscellaneous short-term programs, visit the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), which has a five-week intensive summer program to provide communicative practice in English.

How Technical Documents Are Written in Korea

Korean companies don't understand why technical communication is important. For them, it's always an afterthought or an additional burden. The result is, more often than not, poor quality documentation that smacks of inaccuracies and inconsistencies.

What surprised me when I started to work for Samsung was that some business units (BUs) recruited floor secretaries to write and format their user manuals in English. Other BUs relied on their internal resources (such as subject matter experts, programmers, design engineers, field application engineers, supervisors and managers, public relations officers, sales and marketing staff, and IT specialists) to write or structure technical documents. None of these people had real-life exposure to technical communication in their previous roles; also, they weren't obliged by management to take up formal education or training in technical communication.

Among the most valuable and frequently used resources of Korean writers are digital and online dictionaries and thesauri, translation tools like Hunmin JungUm Global, and guidelines and standards documents for specific industries. Legacy documents are quite popular, too, as are technical documents from peer companies and subject-matter consultants.

Problem Areas

There are no technical publication departments or content business groups per se in most Korean organizations. Additionally, Korean companies lack the experience in setting up technical publication departments. The biggest surprise, however, is the absence of any accurate terminology for technical communication in Korean.

Companies here rarely focus on maintaining standard workflow processes, and they hardly use technology or tools for sharing critical information. Even Korean employees don't share information frequently—if someone leaves the organization, they take the information along with them.

In the past, Korean companies have been on the receiving end of customer wrath due to poorly produced user documentation. Current technical documents do not meet users' satisfaction either, and there are immediate problem areas that need to be addressed.

Most Korean technical writers have never lived in an English-speaking country, and they are used to writing long and unwieldy sentences, laced with grammatical mistakes, colloquialisms, and formatting issues. Making improvements and reducing the cost of creating, editing, and managing content has now become a critical strategy—something that did not exist in Korean organizations in the past.

Some of the bigger problems that continue to haunt the technical communication industry in Korea include: a lack of professional technical communication training on tools and the English language; the inability to hire local/foreign technical communication practitioners who are "right" for the job; few company-/enterprise-level style guides and prescribed patterns, templates, and standard formats to follow; inadequate ethical considerations; and a lack of usability testing.

Also, considerable inconsistencies exist between the writers' criteria and the users' standards of what comprises an effective document. The biggest discrepancy lies in honesty—there's no such thing as copyright in Korea, or if there is, most Korean writers and managers are blind to it. Over the years, the need to hire foreign technical communication practitioners has increased tremendously in Korea. Several factors that have fueled this demand, including globalization, customers who discovered inconsistencies in technical documents, difficulties with translation, and issues with comprehension.

The Role of STC and the Technical Communicator Network

Before we start analyzing the role of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and Korea's Technical Communicator Network (TCN) in elevating the technical communication profession, it's important to understand how Koreans view the English language in general.

Previous studies on the English language may not have centered on writing, let alone technical writing. Almost all Koreans start learning English—both in its written and spoken variants—from as early as the third grade. They are adept at reading English; what they truly lack is the chance to practice speaking it with a native. And while written English is required for university graduation and for attaining employment with big companies in Korea, no one learns to write well.

Some Korean companies like Samsung require a good score in Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). However, even with so much focus on it, English has failed to become the preferred language for communication in Korea. Until it becomes sufficiently widespread, Koreans are unlikely to communicate in native English text or use its rhetorical styles.

In order to disseminate information, awareness, and understanding of the technical communication profession in multicultural, professional, and business organizations in Korea, STC started a Korea Chapter in 2006, which currently has 21 members. In addition to the STC Korea Chapter, technical communicators in Korea can collaborate via Technical Communicator Network (TCN), a relatively unknown entity in Korea with more than 550 registered members. According to Mr. Yoon G. Won, president of TCN Korea, these numbers are going to increase in the coming years.

What Lies Ahead

The profession of technical communication will eventually grow in Korea, but it will take a long time for the profession to fully realize its social responsibilities. In the meantime, technical communicators eager to work in Korea must understand the social, cultural, economic, and political environments in which Korean companies operate.

Academicians should focus on developing students' knowledge and competencies in the use of English language for intercultural communication in business and professional contexts. By opening new university-level programs, they would help technical communication become the most sought after profession in Korea.

Practitioners should also learn the customs and the language of another culture. For instance, without sufficient knowledge of written and spoken Korean, foreign writers will always remain ill-equipped to explore the manner in which Koreans write about technology in their own language.

Finally, my recommendation for dealing with intercultural issues is to have an open mind and heart. While we are all unique in some ways, at the core we're all the same. Our values, goals, and daily issues are pretty much the same. We might exercise different practices and customs, but they all fulfill the same basic needs or desires.

One thing I can say for sure: obtaining the necessary knowledge and skills to survive in a culture and practicing those skills until they become second nature requires effort, but the rewards are both heartwarming and dramatic.

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